Pressing On

A few weeks ago, a friend called Simon came to stay, and I took him to my favourite fish and chip shop. We were standing in the queue, reading the menu-board when Simon suddenly said, 'Pineapple fritter. I haven't had a pineapple fritter for years. I want one of those.' So we ordered cod and chips twice - and a fritter. And the girl said, 'The fritter'll be five minutes. Is that OK?' At which all Simon's enthusiasm seemed to drain away. Five minutes suddenly seemed like forever just for a fritter. So he said, 'Forget the fritter, then. It's not really worth it.' How often we say we want something. And then we find out how much it'll cost - in terms of time, or trouble, or money or whatever. And suddenly it doesn't seem worth it. Well, last week we heard Paul telling us the thing he most wanted in life: 'I want to know Christ.' (3.10) And when you think how much he'd lost for knowing Christ, that is remarkable. Just think what it had cost Paul to be a Christian. Think what he was (v5): he'd been a respected Pharisee. He'd studied at the best Jewish theological college; he was a rising star; he'd soon be writing books and appearing on religious chat-shows and phone-in's. Then think of him now. He's in prison because the Jews don't like what he's saying about Jesus. His old friends have disowned him. He's on trial for his life. He's no longer respected or liked or popular or comfortable. And all because he's a Christian. And still he says, v10: 'I want to know Christ.' For most of us, I don't know what it costs us to know Jesus as Lord. What it costs at home - trying to be a witness to parents or family and friends; trying to bring children to know the Lord, with no guarantees that they'll ultimately want to. I don't know what it costs at work - what issues we've had to take a stand on, what isolation we've experienced, how we may have been disadvantaged or discriminated against. I don't know what the public struggle with peer-pressure has cost you, or the private struggle with temptation. I don't know what knowing Christ has cost you emotionally, mentally, physically, financially. But I do know that if you're a Christian, it has cost you. And that either you have faced, or sometime will face ,the question: 'Is it worth it?' And Paul must have known that that question would be in the minds of the Philippian Christians. If you've been with us throughout this series, you'll remember what he said way back in 1.27:

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then I will know that you stand firm in one Spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel, without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have. (1.27-30)

They knew what it was to be poorly received as Christians; to be argued against for what they said and how they lived; to be frightened by how negative the reaction could be. They knew what it was to wobble in their faith. To ask, 'Is it really worth it?' And to help them, Paul lets them in on what kept him going. Back to v10: 'I want to know Christ,' he says, 'And the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.' [ie, I want to keep going whatever the cost - even if it is death.] Well, what gets someone to that point of Christian maturity where they can say, 'I want to know Christ, whatever it costs'? The answer lies in this morning's passage: the person who says, 'I want to know Christ whatever it costs,' is a person whose eyes are fixed on heaven, and on the cross. So firstly, Press on all the way to heaven (v12-16) To people who were wobbling in their faith, Paul says, 'The way I keep going is this: I press on with my eyes fixed on heaven.' Verse 12: Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect. But I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.' He's just been telling us what his goal in life is. Verse 10: to know Christ personally; to experience God's power so that he can serve Christ as he should, and be the person Christ wants him to be; to be willing to go all the way in obedience - no half-measures or half-heartedness. That was Paul's goal. But he wasn't claiming to have achieved it: 'NOT that I have already attained all this, or have already been made perfect' (v12); 'Brothers, I do NOT consider myself YET to have taken hold of it' (v13) Paul knew that that would be true only beyond the grave. So he says, 'I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.' So we can know Christ personally. But we can only know him imperfectly this side of heaven. We are going to experience what it is to be raised from the dead in a new resurrection body when we'll be sin-free. But not yet, not this side of heaven. And because that's the way things are, Paul says 'I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me' (v12), and 'I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus' (v14). [And by the way he doesn't mean he has to earn his place in heaven. He's just using an illustration to make the point that his eyes are on the finishing line.] And our mistake as Christians is to forget the not yet. We forget that most of the benefits of knowing Christ come beyond this life. So we get dissatisfied, and feel hard-done by, and ask, 'Is it worth it?' And that's the mistake Paul is out to correct. So, for instance, we say (rightly) that the Christian life is a personal relationship with Jesus. But it's a 'long-distance' relationship with someone we can't see. It's indirect, praying and reading the Bible and living by trust. And Paul says, 'Yes, but we haven't got it all yet. One day we will be with him. We will see him. We won't struggle with doubt any more. But that's future, not yet. Or take the struggle of witnessing for the Lord. The lack of interest or negative reactions to invitations. But as John Chapman puts it, 'If they say yes every time, you know you must be in heaven already!' That struggle will end, as well. But that's future, not yet. Or take the struggle of personal holiness. The sinful nature doesn't get any less sinful as the Christian life goes on. The strength and frequency of many temptations remains the same. They're like the people from Telewest Cable Company. They don't go away just because you've said no to them a few times already. But, says Paul, we haven't got it all yet. But we will do. We will have resurrection bodies in which we are perfectly sin-free. No more letting the Lord down. No more shame-faced confession, over and over again. No more despairing with ourselves and giving up. That struggle will also end. But that's also future, not yet. Paul is saying: don't calculate the' worthwhile-ness' of the Christian life purely on the present. No-one in their right minds would be a Christian purely on the strength of the difference it makes in the present. Because the difference it makes in the present is that it makes it harder. It gives you struggles and problems you didn't have as a non-Christian. It's like that quote about marriage by Archbishop Fisher: 'A wife is a great help to a man in all the problems he'd never have had as a bachelor.' Well likewise, knowing Christ creates new problems in the here and now. And no-one would be a Christian purely on the difference it makes to the here and now. At least, that's what Paul says elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 15. Where he says: if Christ wasn't really raised from the dead, nor will we be. And if that's the case, there's no life after death; the here-and-now is all there is. And then he says this. 'If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men' (1 Cor 15.19). But there is a heaven. It's real. And Paul says: Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. (v13-14) So he forgets what's behind. He doesn't dwell on what he's lost. Position, popularity, freedom, comfort. Why dwell on the state of your prison cell when Jesus has said, 'In my Father's house are any roomsI am going there to prepare a place for you' (John 14.1-3)? He doesn't dwell on the cost because it looks very small against the certainty of heaven. And nor should we. The Lord never trivialises the cost. Jesus knows from experience how real it is. But he calls us to get it into perspective. Nor does Paul dwell on his regrets. Remember verse 6: he had more than most to regret. He persecuted Christians to death in his non-Christian existence. He had blood on his hands. But he's a forgiven man. And Paul knows that if God has forgiven the past, he can put it behind himself, too. And so can we. Maybe some of us need to hear that, particularly. I remember a husband and father of two at my last church. He'd only become a Christian later in life. And he said to me with tears in his eyes that he wished it had happened sooner. 'I wish I hadn't wasted so much time,' he said. But he needed to know that God chooses our times. And he needed to hear verse 13: from now on, 'One thing: forgetting what is behind, and straining towards what is ahead, press onheavenwards' Or maybe there's a particular thing in our past which dogs our footsteps. Something on our consciences for which we find it hard to accept forgiveness. Well, regrets are right and proper. But they can keep us from the other right and proper thing, which is to believe God's forgiveness of our past - our pre-Christian past, and our past since coming to Christ. 'Forgetting what is behind, and straining towards what is ahead, I press onheavenwards,' said Paul. And so should we. I remember the old Vicar at the church I went to as a student. He retired aged nearly 70, after 34 years of student ministry. And at his retirement 'do' he spoke briefly. He said the 34 years had been a marvellous time, and that he was now looking forward to being put out to grass. 'But,' he said, 'The lovely thing for the Christian is this: the best is yet to come.' And we all knew what he was talking about. Not his nice retirement flat - which was very nice indeed, thanks to an anonymous gift. But heaven. That's what kept Paul going. Don't calculate things as if the here and now was all there is, he says to us. The best is yet to come, so press on all the way to heaven. Then verse 15:

All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.

Doesn't that overturn our natural ideas of what makes a mature Christian? We tend to think of ourselves as 'nearly there' in the Christian life; almost 'arrived'; borderline 2.1/first class holiness. We grow very easily satisfied with ourselves. We lose the urgency we had in our early Christian days for holiness and serving the Lord more. Perhaps we even look back and think we were a bit too keen then. But that isn't maturity, according to Paul. That's stagnation. And I guess we tend to think that older Christians or Christian leaders are 'nearly there'. They've pretty much arrived, we tell ourselves, putting them up on a pedestal. I remember the leaders on the SU camp I went on from school. 'They don't struggle with pride or lust or envy or temper anymore,' I thought to myself. Until I became one. And realised what dangerous nonsense those pedestals are. And how dangerous it is as a leader of any sort to let people put you on a pedestal. What a contrast with verse 15. The mature people are the ones who know they haven't arrived; who are dissatisfied with themselves; who are still pressing on in holiness; who are more concerned, not less, to find time to read the Bible and pray; who as they get to know the Lord better detect more within themselves, not less, that's imperfect and needs God to change it. And Paul says, literally, 'If somehow you think differently, God will reveal this to you.' In other words, if you think differently about maturity, you need God to change your mind. Because the really mature are the ones who know how far they still have to go. Then verse 16:

Only, let us live up to what we've already attained.

We're all at different stages in the Christian life. Some know God better than others. Some know better what to aim for than others. That's not the point. I'm to live up to how well I know the Lord, and you're to live up to how well you know him. What matters is not so much where we've got to, or what we know, but whether we're moving forwards. Press on all the way to heaven. Then two much briefer points: Secondly, Beware here-and-now religion (v17-19) Paul knew that there were other religious voices in Philippi apart from his own. And he knew they'd be attractive to hard-pressed Christians for one simple reason: the religion they offered was much easier. So he has to say, verse 17:

Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.

I take it that the pattern Paul gave is in Philippians 2.6-11. That passage is really the centrepiece of the letter - the jewel at the heart of Philippians. It's the pattern of Jesus' death and resurrection: costly obedience NOW, and glory, ie heaven, LATER. That's the pattern that Paul lived by. So he could rejoice in a prison cell facing death - because he knew the deal was: suffering now, glory later. Back in chapter 2, Timothy could happily work his socks off for the gospel (2.19-24) and Epaphroditus risk his life for it (2.25-30) - because they knew the deal was: suffering now, glory later. If the Lord Jesus had been obedient to the point of death, what right did they have to a more comfortable ride in the Christian life? 'No servant is above his Master,' after all. (John 13.16, 15.20) And Paul says (v17): follow those who live by that pattern: costly obedience now, because they're sure of heaven to come. And he has to warn them against following others: For, as I have often told you before, and now say again with tears, there are many who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction. Their 'god' is their stomach and their 'glory' is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things (v18-19). In other words, beware: there are plenty of religious people who live according to a different pattern - a pattern that makes for an easy life, here and now. Writers disagree about verses 18 and 19. I take it he's talking about the same people he warned about in verse 2: Jewish opponents of the Christian message. 'Their 'god' is their stomach' is probably a sarcastic reference to the food laws they lived for. And, 'Their 'glory' is in their shame' is probably a dig at circumcision: they glory in, they get worked up about, something that's so shameful that you actually keep it hidd He's talking about people who had a religion, but a religion without the cross of Christ. You see, the trouble with the cross is twofold. For one thing, it's humbling. It tells us we're not good enough for God, however good we think we are. It says our sin is so serious it deserves the judgement Jesus faced when he died for us. It says we need saving from judgement and can't save ourselves. Very humbling. Which is why the message doesn't go down well. The other thing is that the cross is demanding. If Jesus did that for me, how can I say to him, 'I'll follow you, but only up to this point'? If I follow a Lord who suffered for me, it will mean suffering for him. So, if you want an easier religion, an easier message and an easier ride, just miss out the cross. And basically, these people in verses 18-19 did exactly that. They had a message about a God with whom you'd be OK if you got circumcised and kept various food-laws. Nothing very humbling there. Nothing that ruffles human pride and says things like, 'You're a sinner and you need to be saved.' And, to be honest, nothing very demanding. Missing out on pork isn't that big a deal, really. Even getting circumcised is only temporarily uncomfortable. It's easy religion. We're all natural suffering-avoiders. We'd love a more acceptable message that went down better. I remember being at a drinks party in one of the Senior Common Rooms in Cambridge. I was introduced as 'someone who worked at one of the local churches'. I got into conversation about the Christian message. It was all very easy-going and jovial - until the other guy said, 'But you're not saying that the Jews and Buddhists and Muslims are all wrong, are you?' That's the crunch, isn't it? Either I opt for a continuing easy, jovial time. Or I tell the truth. So I said, 'Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. According to the Christina message, they're all wrong.' And the joviality disappeared. That wasn't what he wanted to hear. The cross goes down like a lead balloon. We're all natural suffering-avoiders. So we're all attracted to easy religion: religion that amounts to just a few 'add-on's, but doesn't actually demand anything of us. I remember a Scripture Union camp I was leading on for 10-13 year-olds. One of the boys in my group came to faith during the week. And when his mother picked him up, he showed here the Bible reading notes he'd bought, and told her he was planning to read his Bible every day. To which, in front of several of his friends, she said, 'That's lovely, dear. I just hope you're not going to go religious on us.' In other words, don't take it too seriously. A little bit of Bible reading, yes. But no more. Nothing demanding. Nothing life-involving. We're all attracted to easy religion: either other religions, or false versions of Christianity. Versions of Christianity that say you don't have to speak for Christ, because everyone's way to God will get them there in the end. That 'P.C.' version makes for a quiet life. Or versions of Christianity that say God affirms us as we are, so we don't actually use words like sin or call on people to repent of sin. Or versions of Christianity that say that God is out to fulfil us completely in the here and now, or to bless us materially or physically without fail in the here and now. All very easy. All totally false. And if -end of v19 - our minds are on earthly things, if we have no eternal perspective, if in practice we too only really believe in the here and now, we will buy in to them. We will miss out the cross, because that's what makes for trouble in the here and now. Which brings us to the last point: Thirdly, Only firm conviction about heaven will make us stand firm in the present (3:20-4:1) In a way, this just brings us back where we began, pressing on to heaven: Verse 20:

But our citizenship is in heaven [ie, that's where we belong, we're just temporary residents down here]. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body.

Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord dear friends!' (3.20-4.1)

Back in 1:27, Paul's main command to them was: stand firm. And after another two chapters he sums up, 4:1 'There you have it. That is how you should stand firm. That's the secret to standing firm.' And the secret is to be convinced about heaven. That's what this whole passage has been about - from verse 12 down to 4:1. We'll only be able to accept costly obedience now if we're convinced about heaven. We'll only press on in personal holiness if we're convinced about heaven. We'll only witness to Christ in a way that could lose us friends if we're convinced about heaven. We'll only plant churches that cost us money if we're convinced about heaven. We simply can't and won't live the Christian life on 'here and now' reasons and incentives. It just doesn't work. Just think, to end with, what exams, pregnancy, and engagement all have in common. It seems to me you'd never get through any of them if there wasn't an end in sight. A holiday to have; a baby to have; a husband or wife to have. None of them are states of existence you'd want to be permanent. One of the longest engagements in this country lasted 44 years. When they finally married, he was 72 and she was 68. They'd got through 4 engagement rings - the previous three having worn out. But that's not ideal, is it? What gets you through engagement is the prospect of marriage. What gets you through pregnancy is the prospect of the baby. What gets you through the costliness of knowing Christ? What keeps you going as a Christian? Paul says: the prospect of heaven. The Christian life isn't just life here and now. This is just the waiting room, the transit lounge. There is heaven to follow. And whatever the transit lounge brings, the flight to heaven is not worth missing for anything. Martin Luther was once asked how he lived the Christian life the way he did. He said this: 'I live as if Jesus died for me yesterday, rose today, and is coming to take me to heaven tomorrow.' And I reckon Paul would have said 'Amen' to that.

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